Come Monday our great nation will honor for the 67th time all the people who served in the armed forces. That’s a long time, and two Billings men can say they’ve been around for each and every one of the Veterans Day celebrations.
And they’re both darn proud of being in the club, a fraternity that becomes more exclusive with each passing year.
Leonard Earl Dahl, 90, and Benjamin Charles Steele, 95, both served in the Army in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Dahl served 32 months in the infantry, leaving the service in late 1945 after the war ended. Steele was in the Army Air Corps for close to six years, ending his career in the summer of 1946, a year before the first national celebration for all our military veterans.
One got through the war relatively unscathed, at least physically. The other, certainly not so.
The beauty of sitting down and chatting with Steele and his good friend Dahl is their precise recall of events, storytelling about the savage conflict. While their bodies wane, their nonagenarian minds are sharp. And playful. Add them up and it makes for entertaining war story dialogue that surfaces each Nov 11.
Asked how many more Veterans Day celebrations he hopes to be part of, Steele returns a quick reply and a laugh: “Oh, about 50 or 60.” Chances are slim that he’ll make 145 years old, but Steele’s survival rate is legendary.
Many in Montana know the Steele saga during the greatest of wars. He emptied his pistol at Japanese Zero aircraft buzzing Clark Air Base in the Philippines hours after Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941.
Squeezed into the Bataan Peninsula by invading Japanese forces, he along with 10,000 other America soldiers surrendered months later and participated in the most infamous of POW toil – the Bataan Death March.
He spent time at all the renowned Japanese prison camps – Camp O’Donnell, Cabanatuan and Bilibid. Then he was transported on a hell ship to mainland Japan to work the coal mines until his liberation in September 1945.
“Yeah, I was involved in everything when you talk about being a Japanese POW in the Philippines during the war,” Steele reflected. “About the only thing I wasn’t was being aboard a hell ship that was torpedoed and sank. Many were, and ours was at sea for more than 60 days, the longest of any. We even survived a typhoon.”
Steele was given his last rites three times at the Bilibid Prison in Manila, suffering from severe malaria and beriberi, where he swelled to more than 300 pounds. This was from working on a POW road construction project in thick jungle that started with 325 men. Only 50 survived.
“I survived it all, I don’t know how, because I was all but dead several times,” Steele recalled. “I went nine days without eating on the Death March and I marched with the best of men. For three and a half years, after I was captured on April 9, 1942, I was always hungry, near starvation, I was so skinny. People now miss a meal and say they are starving. One meal, that’s nothing.”
Steele said the first thing he ate when American planes dropped food and supplies in his prison camp following the Japanese surrender was a loaf of bread and a half pound of butter. And 24 Baby Ruth-type chocolate bars.
“I threw up after eating those, but they tasted so good, Steele said, while giggling. “I can even remember tasting the flavor when they were coming back up.”
Steele commented about getting perhaps a bad deal being assigned to the Philippines.
“My mother told me to enlist into the military because the country might be going to war, and if I went in early I might get a good assignment,” Steele said. “I was regular Army and we were the first ones into battle during the war, the first captured. Guys use to tell me, well you asked for it, so you deserved it.
“The first year when I was in the States I enjoyed being in the Army, when we were at peace. When we sailed for the Philippines we were escorted by the USS Helena. The Philippines for two months was beautiful, the food was good, going into the villages after work, visiting Manila.
“But it all changed in one day. Being a POW was traumatic. But then the liberation, my God, it felt so good when I was liberated it was almost worth it.”
Following the war, Steele studied art in Cleveland, Ohio, where he met his wife, Shirley. He taught art at Eastern Montana University for three decades. Many of his drawings of prisoner life are in books written about Philippine POWs.
He enjoys Veterans Day celebrations and POW/MIA gatherings. He attends many, and says, quite frankly, he eats up the attention. This past Sunday, Steele attended a Bataan Death March/Corregidor gathering in Portland, Ore., where actress Loretta Swit of “M.A.S.H.” fame met survivors.
“They tell me how great I am, all that stuff, yeah, I enjoy going to them,” Steele said, who turns 96 on Nov 17. “But only two of us from the Death March will be there. I might be the oldest one now.”
Steele was asked whether he’d recommend a military life today to an 18-year-old.
“I almost stayed in the military, but I wanted to go to college,” Steele said. I would encourage [young adults] to go into the military today because it’s a damn good experience for anybody. Of course, you don’t have to be a POW or anything, I’d tell them to try and avoid that, as much as possible.”
Had Steele remained on the Philippines, perhaps Corporal Dahl would have been there to help free him in early 1945. He was part of the gigantic Allied force that took back the Philippine Islands from Japan starting in January 1945.
He also served in New Zealand and New Guinea. Like Steele, he saw volunteering into the Army as a call of duty and would do it again without hesitation. He disliked the massive death all around, including some he was responsible for.
“I threw a grenade down from a mountain on Japanese trucks that were passing by on a road,” Dahl said, recalling the event with horror, yet courageous amazement, at the same time. “And I never forget seeing a Japanese soldier throwing himself on that grenade and then it exploded.”
Another vivid memory was as a scout on an advance team and coming upon three men surrendering, hands up. One had a big ring on his finger.
“He says to me in English, ‘Do you want my UCLA ring?’ He had studied in the U.S. before the war. I didn’t want his ring; it was his,” Dahl said. “But the next day I’m riding in a truck with a group of fellow soldiers. I look down and see that UCLA ring on a guy’s finger.”
Surreal sights for a 21-year-old. Visions he’d just as soon forget, along with the malaria that stayed with him a spell, and the measly $20 a month Army pay.
Within three months of leaving the Army, he was enrolled in college to study accounting in Missoula. He says most guys did that, answered the call and then just moved on with civilian life, lucky to have sideswiped death or a prison camp.
He managed a Billings insurance company for almost 30 years and raised a family with his wife, Marguerite. Their son, John Dahl, is a film and television director who guided the 2005 film, “The Big Raid,” about the Cabanatuan prison camp liberation.
Dahl says he typically does little to celebrate Veterans Day. He likes getting together with Steele after their worship service at Billings First United Methodist Church. He says that when they talk war, Steele tells him POW tidbits he tells no other. And that’s enough.
Rather, come November, Dahl thinks about wartime buddy, Pat Reevis, from Browning, who died in action. He was the first Native American the then-19-year-old Dahl ever knew.
He said he just didn’t know any growing up in homogenous Sidney, simple as that. Reevis was a big athletic type, smart and a nice man, recalled Dahl.
“We’re sitting on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean during boot camp in California, and he says to me, ‘Dahl’ – you called each other by last names in the Army – he says, ‘Dahl, will you be my friend after the war?’ And I said, ‘Sure, Reevis, will you be my friend?’ And he said sure,” Dahl said.
Unlucky, was the corporal, to lose his best friend.